URF and another v URH

JudgeTan Puay Boon JC
Judgment Date08 January 2019
Neutral Citation[2019] SGHCF 1
Plaintiff CounselFoo Hsiang Howe Roger and Gan Jhia Huei (Genesis Law Corporation)
Date08 January 2019
Docket NumberHCF/Suit No 6 of 2017 (Registrar’s Appeals Nos 2 and 3 of 2018)
Hearing Date10 October 2018,26 October 2018
Subject MatterFamily Court,Family Law,Procedure
Citation[2019] SGHCF 1
Defendant CounselTay Wei Loong Julian and Ong Hui Xian, Andrea (Lee & Lee)
CourtHigh Court (Singapore)
Published date13 November 2019
Tan Puay Boon JC:

Registrar’s Appeals Nos 2 and 3 of 2018 (“RA 2” and “RA 3”) are two appeals that arise out of a suit concerning the estate of [X], who passed away in 2017. RA 2 is the plaintiffs’ appeal against certain specific discovery orders made by the assistant registrar (“the AR”) below. RA 3 is the defendant’s appeal against a bifurcation order made by the AR.

The parties

The first plaintiff was [X]’s personal assistant who worked with him at his company, [Z] Pte Ltd, since at least the 1980s.1 The precise relationship between [X] and the first plaintiff is keenly disputed in this action.

The second plaintiff is the son of the first plaintiff’s sister. According to him, the first plaintiff has cared for and raised him as her son since he was about a few weeks old, and he regards her as his mother.2

The defendant is the only child of [X] and [X]’s wife, [Y].3 He resides in Spain. The defendant has lived overseas for several years. While [X] was alive, he would return to Singapore about once or twice each year.4

The undisputed facts

On 25 April 2005, [X] and [Y] made two wills whose provisions mirror each other. The first plaintiff was a witness to these wills. I will refer to the will executed by [X] as “the 2005 Will”. The 2005 Will provided as follows:5 [X] appointed [Y] as the executrix of the will albeit that if [Y] predeceased him or died within two weeks of his death, the defendant was to be appointed as the executor of the will; [Y] was named as the sole beneficiary of [X]’s estate albeit that, if [Y] predeceased [X], the defendant was to be the sole beneficiary.

On 12 January 2007, [Y] passed away.6

On 12 November 2008, [X] allegedly executed a will (“the 2008 Will”). Under the terms of the 2008 Will:7 All former wills made by [X] were revoked; [X] appointed the plaintiffs to be the executors of the will; [X] gave his house and certain office premises to the plaintiffs in joint tenancy; and [X] gave his residual estate to the plaintiffs and the defendant in the following proportions: 40% to the first plaintiff, 30% to the second plaintiff and 30% to the defendant.

On 14 May 2017, [X] passed away.8

On 22 June 2017, the plaintiffs applied for a grant of probate of the 2008 Will.9

On 29 June 2017, the defendant’s solicitors lodged a caveat on his behalf against the grant of probate (“the Caveat”).10

On 3 July 2017, the plaintiffs filed a Warning to Caveator requiring the defendant to file an Appearance to Warning setting out his alleged interest in [X]’s estate.11

On 11 July 2017, the defendant filed an Appearance in respect of the Warning to Caveator, claiming that he had an interest in [X]’s estate as the sole beneficiary to and intended administrator of [X]’s estate. The defendant alleged that the 2008 Will was invalid on the grounds of undue influence and/or lack of testamentary capacity due to [X]’s medical condition at the material time.12

On 31 August 2017, the plaintiffs commenced this suit (“Suit 6”) in the Family Division of the High Court (“the Family Division”).13

The parties’ cases in Suit 6

The plaintiffs’ case, pared down to its essentials, is as follows: First, the 2008 Will is valid: the defendant’s claims that it was procured by undue influence and that [X] lacked testamentary capacity at the material time (see [18(a)] below) are untrue.14 Second, the defendant’s allegations regarding the validity of the 2005 Will and transfers which [X] allegedly made to the plaintiffs (“the Alleged Transfers”) (see [18(b)]–[18(c)] below) are also untrue.15

The plaintiffs accordingly seek, among other reliefs, an order that the Caveat be removed and a grant of probate of the 2008 Will.16

More broadly, the plaintiffs aver as follows: The first plaintiff and [X] had a romantic relationship spanning 40 years; they were constant companions until his passing. [X] cared for the plaintiffs as if they were his wife and son; the trio were for all intents and purposes a family unit. Although [X] and [Y] remained married, they led largely separate lives. [Y] knew of [X]’s relationship with the first plaintiff, and did not show resentment towards the plaintiffs.17 The defendant had a fractious relationship with his parents, [X] and [Y]. [X] had often shared with the plaintiffs his disappointment with and disapproval of the defendant, whom he regarded as selfish.18 In or around 2006, [X] was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. However, this did not cause [X] to suffer from any significant cognitive impairment. It was only in August 2009 (that is, after the 2008 Will was executed) that [X]’s health took a turn for the worse.19

Importantly, on the plaintiffs’ own case, the first plaintiff was heavily involved in [X]’s life and personal affairs, and there was “love, mutual trust and confidence” between them.20 [X] “entrusted the [first plaintiff] with his personal and company affairs”.21 More specifically, according to the plaintiffs:22 the first plaintiff and [X] “practically spent all of their time together”; [X]’s cars were available for the first plaintiff’s use; the first plaintiff signed the necessary papers to authorise surgery on [X] after he fell into a coma in August 2009; and the first plaintiff managed or primarily supervised [X]’s care from August 2009 to 2017, and would go to his home “practically every day to attend to [X] and the affairs of [Z] Pte Ltd” [emphasis added].

The defendant’s case is as follows: First, the 2008 Will is invalid because:23 it was purportedly executed at a time when [X] lacked testamentary capacity due (primarily) to illness; and further, or alternatively, the 2008 Will was procured by undue influence exerted by the first plaintiff over [X]. Second, [X]’s last will is the 2005 Will and under that will, the defendant is the executor and also the sole beneficiary of [X]’s estate.24 Third, [X] made inter vivos transfers to the first plaintiff and/or the second plaintiff under undue influence exerted by the plaintiffs, and/or these transfers were made when [X] lacked mental capacity.25

The defendant seeks the following reliefs among others:26 a declaration that the 2008 Will is invalid and of no effect; a declaration that the 2005 Will is proved in solemn form of law and a grant of probate of the 2005 Will; an order that the plaintiffs render an account of assets which they received from [X] or [X]’s estate from 2008; a declaration that the transfer of [X]’s properties and/or assets to the plaintiffs from 2008 be set aside, as having been procured by the undue influence of the plaintiffs over [X]; and a declaration that the plaintiffs hold the properties and/or the assets and/or [X]’s estate as constructive trustees for the defendant.

More broadly, the defendant makes the following claims: [X] did not have a romantic relationship with the first plaintiff, but “always maintained a purely professional working relationship” with her.27 This is a case of “an employee-cum-personal assistant … seeking to enrich herself with the assets of her deceased employer … [through] scheming and systematic control of [his] mind, person and property”.28 He had a close relationship with [X] which became stronger after [Y] passed away.29 [X] had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease since 1999. His health deteriorated rapidly around 2007 to 2008, after the death of [Y]. At this point, the first plaintiff “seized the opportunity to systematically assume full control, influence and dominion over the old and infirm [X] and all of his personal finances and business affairs”.30 She procured the execution of the 2008 Will, prevented him from changing the 2008 Will when he wanted to in 2011 and procured transfers of monies to herself.31

The proceedings and decisions below

On 13 April 2018, the parties filed the following applications: First, the plaintiffs applied for an order that the plaintiffs’ claim and that part of the defence and counterclaim relating to the validity of the 2008 Will (“the Preliminary Issue”) be tried first, with all other parts of the defence and counterclaim to be stayed and dealt with, if necessary, after the determination and disposal of the Preliminary Issue.32 I will refer to this application as “the Bifurcation Application”. Second, the defendant applied for specific discovery of certain documents (“the Specific Discovery Application”).33

On 20 July 2018, the AR dealt with both applications. She granted the Bifurcation Application, ordering that the Preliminary Issue be tried first (“the Bifurcation Order”).34 She also granted the Specific Discovery Application in part, ordering the plaintiffs to provide specific discovery of various documents (“the Specific Discovery Order”).35

The AR gave brief oral grounds for the Bifurcation Order:36 The AR accepted that the evidence on the plaintiffs’ receipt of assets from 2008 would bear on the validity of the 2008 Will. However, she did not agree that there was a significant overlap of issues requiring all of the issues to be heard at the same time. The determination of which will should be recognised was a preliminary exercise that could proceed in a timely way, and would have a significant impact on how the parties proceeded thereafter. If all issues were heard at once, this would “labour the parties in terms of cost and time”. The Bifurcation Application was thus allowed on “a balance of justice and convenience”. The AR added that in her view, the Family Division had jurisdiction to hear all of the matters in Suit 6. The decision of the Court of Appeal in UDA v UDB and another [2018] 1 SLR 1015 (“UDA”) when read in the context of the provisions of the Family Justice Act 2014 (Act 27 of 2014) (“the FJA”) did not militate against that view.

I turn first to RA 3.

RA 3 – The Bifurcation Order

RA 3 is the defendant’s appeal against the Bifurcation Order.

The parties’...

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